What Do You Know About Champagne?

One of the things I’ve enjoyed, as I’ve researched into our new Champagne tour, is finding out that so many things that I knew about Champagne just aren’t true.

So this blog is a bit of a ‘myth-buster’. You can use this information to impress friends at your next dinner party, or just enjoy learning stuff.

1. Only sparkling wine made from grapes from within the AOC area of Champagne can be called Champagne.

Korbel Brut, Californian Champagne

Korbel Brut, Californian Champagne

True or False? That’s a False! But the reason is fabulously interesting, and involves geo-politics at the very highest level.

The first international protection of the method and the geographic area came about through the Madrid Agreement of 1891, finalised in 1889, concerning the ‘International Registration of Marks.

After the First World War, these rules were included within the Treaty of Versailles, believe it or not. And the USA never ratified the Treaty of Versailles! So in the US, Champagne was not protected.

The EU and the Americans finally reached agreement in 2006 to protect the labelling of wine regions that included Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, etc., but companies that had approval to use the name ‘Champagne’ prior to 2006 could continue to do so. There is one concession, they must carry the name of the state on the label, underneath ‘Champagne’.

In fact, the largest-selling Champagne brand in the US is an American company called Korbel.

There is a further complication. There is a wine-producing village in Switzerland called Champagne. The Swiss Government agreed with the EU to stop Champagne labelling their wines as ‘champagne’ by 2004. But, sales fell dramatically, and in a local election in 2008, residents voted to resume using the ‘Champagne’ label.

It hasn’t happened yet, but watch this space.

 

2. The three grapes that can be used to make Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.

The Vineyards of Haut Villers

The Vineyards of Haut Villers

That’s another wrong’un. Who knew, eh? But there are actually 7 types of grapes allowed in Champagne:
Pinot Noir (most widely used)
Pinot Meunier (widely used)
Chardonnay (widely used)
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Gris
Petit Meslier
Arbane

 

3. Dom Pérignon

Champagne Moët & Chandon, Epernay ©E.Vidal-Coll.ADT MarneThis is a classic. It’s one thing for a single fact to be wrong, but every single fact?

Dom Pérignon was a blind monk in charge of the cellars in the Abbey of Hautvillers who discovered the process of making sparkling wine, and uttered the lovely words to his colleagues ‘Come quickly, I am tasting the stars’.

I love this story, but absolutely none of it is true. In Dom Pérignon’s day, sparkling wine was considered a mistake, ‘dirty’. He never made a single glass of sparkling wine in his life, as far as we know. He died in 1715, and it wasn’t until the mid-19th Century that sparkling champagne became a ‘thing’. And he certainly never uttered his famous quote about drinking the stars, that was a marketing slogan more than a century after he died.

And as a final flourish, he wasn’t even blind, either! Every single word of the ‘legend’ around Dom Pérignon is rubbish.

The legend began after the French revolution and the Napoloenic wars, largely through the work of the last Treasurer of the Abbey de Haut Villers, Dom Grossard (in case you’re wondering, Dom just means Lord, or boss, chief, skipper, gaffer, take your pick).

Having been relegated to parish priest, Grossard wrote a history of the Abbey, and it’s fair to say that when it came to Dom Pérignon he let his imagination run a little wild. Well, quite a lot wild, actually.

 

4. Champagne was the first sparkling wine, and where the ‘méthode champenoise’ was discovered.

Champagne cork

Champagne cork

I’m sure you’re getting the hang of this – not true!

First of all, some vocabulary. If you bottle a wine while the fermentation is still ongoing, you’ll get sparkling wine, provided you can keep the wine in an airtight container. So, it doesn’t work in barrels – not ever. And in Limoux, close to the Spanish border, as far back as the early 16th century, monks were able to use cork from the neignbouring catalan cork forests to produce a sparkling wine. Similar happened in other regions, for example in Gaillac. This method of producing sparkling wine is known as ‘méthode ancestrale’.

We can discount these. The méthode champenoise, also known as the méthode traditionelle, is the process of creating sparkling wine through a secondary fermentation. The wine is produced in the normal way, in barrel or in tank. Fermentation has stopped when more sugar and yeast is added to the bottled wine, and the bottle is sealed.

This was a far more reliable, industrial process, and it was certainly the méthode champenoise that sparked the rise of Champagne. But they didn’t invent the process.

The Brits had been adding sugar and yeast to cider to produce a sparkling drink through a secondary fermentation as early as the 1620s, and scientist Christopher Merrett presented the ‘méthode’ to the Royal Society in 1622.

Champagne is a marketing triumph. That’s the long and the short of it. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that so many of the origin stories aren’t true. Enjoy them, and then we can learn how to discover the truly sublime champagnes. And they are definitely not a myth!

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